Britons kidnapped on expedition to 'Stone Age' jungle

IAN MacKINNON

The father of one of four British researchers, held by separatist guerrillas in the Indonesian jungle, said last night he was confident his son could cope with the kidnapping ordeal.

Speaking from the family home in the small Borders town of Jedburgh, Richard Oates, father of Bill Oates, said relatives were waiting anxiously for news.

"Bill has done quite a lot of travelling around places like South Africa," he said. "It is the first time he has visited a part of the world like this. He is a responsible person who would not do anything rash or silly. We are all confident that if kidnapped he would know how to deal with the situation properly."

Foreign Office officials yesterday travelled to one of the remotest areas in the world in an attempt to glean information about the missing students.

The four, in a group of 24 being held in Irian Jaya, all graduated from Cambridge University last year and were part of an expedition studying the region's plant and wildlife.

Three-hundred troops were reported to have been dispatched to the area where the group was seized, about 150 miles south-west of the provincial capital, Jayapura.

No ransom demands emerged from the kidnappers, but an Indonesian human rights group in London said they were being held by a unit of the Free Papua Movement, to highlight their fight for independence. The group urged the British Government to press Jakarta to negotiate with the kidnappers, rather than use force.

The four, Daniel Start, 21, Bill Oates, 22, Anna McIvor, 21, and Annette van der Kolk, 21, along with two Dutch nationals and a German, were taken prisoner in Mapenduma village on Monday. The way of life in the area has changed little since the Stone Age.

Villagers are believed to have helped the rebels capture the expeditionary team, according to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, which employs the German and one of the Dutchmen. The other captured members of the team, which had been conducting research since September, are Indonesian.

The aim of the joint expedition, which had the backing of the Indonesian government and the support of a number of UK bodies, including the Royal Geographical Society, had been to chart the enormous biological diversity of the region.

The hope is that the reserve, which includes the Baliem Valley, could become a national park and be nominated a World Heritage Site.

But the expedition was also working with the local community in an effort to develop a system of sustainable conservation that would also help the tribespeople maintain and improve their livelihoods.

Despite primitive conditions and its remote location, Lorentz reserve had not been considered dangerous, though there had been a number of kidnappings of local people recently.

Yesterday, those who knew the seized Britons - all of whom are veterans of a number of expeditions - were confident they would be tough and resourceful enough to handle captivity.

Judith Wright, at Pembroke College, said of Ms McIvor: "It's difficult to say how she would stand up to something like this, but she was always interested in travel."

Dr Ken Riley, senior tutor at Clare College, said of Bill Oates: "I don't know if anybody can be expected to cope well in this sort of situation, but if I was choosing anyone, it would be Bill."

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